Wednesday, August 12, 2009
I grew up eating bad cheese. It wasn't cheese, actually, it was "processed cheese food." And then there were those bland, rubbery, generic blocks of unnaturally colored mild cheddar. When you think about it, they're kind of like the England Dan and John Ford Coley of cheese. Or better yet, the Air Supply of cheese.
Then there's the Maroon 5 of cheese - the ones who try to pass themselves off as the real thing by using made up French names and fancy packaging or disguising their poor quality and questionable provenance in the shape of a cow or maybe a heart with dried cranberries on top? Do yourself a favor and run the other way.
It wasn't until I moved to Italy in my twenties that I finally understood how excruciatingly beautiful good cheese can be. How sad is that? That's like twenty years of cheese-eating I'll never get back. It would be so easy to be bitter about that but instead, I'm choosing to flip it in gratitude because I live in a city that's drooling distance to a whole lot of artisanal cheese production. Between Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, there's close to one hundred small, hand-crafted cheeses being produced on gorgeous lands where cows and goats and sheep roam free.
Hmm, maybe somebody should write a musical about it! Like a Midwest farm version of Brigadoon but all about cheese and the hard-working craftspeople who make it. And there's a love story about two teenagers from feuding cheese-making families who struggle to be together and some of the farm animals could talk and of course, sing and they could sell cheese flights in the lobby during intermission and also big foam fingers with iconic images of cheese on them that audience members could wave in unison during the really moving, climactic songs. Right? See you at the Tony's!
But I digress.
Here's just a few of my favorite cheeses. I urge you to go out and find them or others like them that first and foremost - taste amazing - and are also made with great care, quality and integrity. I truly believe they will make your life better. There are plenty of cheeses from other parts of the country and the world that I adore as well, but I try to spread the love around as much as I can. So just go out there and get stupid, as the kids say - with cheese.
Capriole Mont St. Francis Goat Cheese, Greenville, Indiana
This is The Black Keys of cheese. The makers of this cheese describe it as intense, beefy and earthy. As far as I'm concerned, they are spot on. This is a raw milk, semi-hard goat cheese that's going to rock your world...
Available at Pastoral, Green City Market and Whole Foods Market.
Crave Brothers Petite Frère, Waterloo, Wisconsin
This, to me, is the Radiohead of cheese, it's not for everybody, but those who get it, are obsessed with it. It's similar to a Camembert in style - runny and stinky and multi-layered in flavor. Made with farm fresh cow's milk. A connoisseur's cheese if there ever was one.
Available at my favorite local wine and cheese shop, Provenance. Owners Tracy and Joe specialize in lots of local cheeses and offer great service.
Mt. Sterling Raw Goat Cheddar, Mt. Sterling, Wisconsin
The Herbie Hancock of Cheese. Mr. Versatility. Genius at simply snacking, glorious when melted, makes any sandwich better and plays well with others - loves a good collaboration.
Available at Whole Foods Market.
I sure would LOVE to hear from you about your favorite cheeses and any musical metaphors that describe them.
So enough of these one-note, one-hit wonders. I'm bringing quality back. (one cheese at a time.)
On Buying Cheese:
Know that it's always OK to ask for a taste before you purchase anything. Most cheese mongers are happy to oblige.
If you want a great experience tasting small batch cheeses from all over the country, there's a gentleman named Giles Schnierle who runs a company called The Great American Cheese Collection on the south side of Chicago. He has tastings in his warehouse every Saturday.
Lastly, your trusty neighborhood farmers' market sells cheeses I'll bet, just like mine do. Green City Market supports many local cheese makers such as Brunkow, Capriole, Nordic Creamery, Prairie Fruits Farm, Saxon Homestead Creamery and Prairie Pure Cheese. We are talking many award-winning cheese-makers all in one place. A local cheese lover's paradise.